Scholarly Source: Noble David Cook, Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650

European Exploration, Perception of the Other, and the Columbian Exchange 

How did the Columbian exchange link worlds?

Noble David Cook, Born to Die: Disease and New World Conquest, 1492-1650 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 16-38.

Noble David Cook is Professor of History in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University. He has written, co-written, edited or translated over twelve books on Peru, colonial conquest, and disease in the New World.

The disappearance of the aboriginal peoples of the Caribbean was quick and set a pattern that was repeated time and again elsewhere in the hemisphere. There is no simple answer for the demographic collapse, because what happened after 1492 is a complex historical process and the factors are multifaceted. Outright military conquest was one factor, . . . Yet the critical factor in the European conquest and collapse of New World civilization was disease. Deadly illnesses that devastated native Americans weeks and even years before the foreigners were faced directly for sickness spread from one native group to another.

It was not the first small fleet of ships under Christopher Columbus that transferred Old World diseases to the Americas. . . In spite of the duration of the trip and the poor quality of the provisions, the men seem to have been remarkably free from illness, . . . Indeed, the first disease contact between the two worlds was far more deadly for the Europeans than the Amerindians. Several of the people who returned on the Pinta and Niña to the Iberian peninsula in early 1493 likely were infected with endemic New World syphilis. Most paleoanthropologists now agree that the archeological evidence for long-term and widespread syphilis infection in the Americas is persuasive. . .

. . . Native American mortality is difficult to assess, because the Spanish took no accurate count and had no grasp of the true size of the island’s population in 1494. . . The sickness or sicknesses that afflicted both Spaniard and native American in late 1493 broke forever the ecological isolation of the two continents. . . It is evident from contemporary descriptions that sickness with resultant high mortality, extended convalescence, and common relapses characterized the initial years of Hispaniola’s full integration into the Atlantic world. . . Francisco Guerra’s assertion that the Spaniards unwittingly carried and introduced swine influenza seems plausible but it is also possible that other diseases contributed to elevated mortality. Typhus, often associated with troop movements and warfare, was prevalent in Andalusia these years. The fall of Granada was accompanied by deadly typhus, and it lingered in endemic form. A severe strain of bacillary dysentery might also have caused the substantial loss of life during this period. . . Of the Taino natives, untold numbers perished.